When Dr. Zane Dougherty swept Winifred Von Dannen's sister off to Smoke River, Winifred was resentful, but now she wants to be part of her late sister's baby's life. That means dealing with Zane and the shadows of lonelinessand incredible hungershe sees in his eyes.
Zane knows he and his infant daughter are truly blessed. But he wants more. He wants Winifred! Is there a way he can mend this broken family and care for them forever?
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Smoke River, Oregon
Th e train chuffed to a stop and Winifred peered out at the town. A seedy-looking building with two large dust-covered windows faced the station; Smoke River Hotel was emblazoned across the front in foot-high dirty white printed lettering. Winifred groaned at the sight. The thought of two whole weeks in this rough Western town made her stomach tighten.
"End of the line, miss," the conductor bawled.
She blew out a shaky breath and straightened her spine. Most definitely the end of the line. Where else on God's earth would one see such an array of ramshackle structures leaning into the wind? Could Cissy really have been happy in such a place?
The passenger car door thumped open. "Ya might wanna catch yer breath a minute when you get to the station. Heat can get to ya, ya know."
No, she did not know. She eyed the purple-hazed mountains in the distance. St. Louis was flat as a sadiron and the downtown area was extremely well kept. She had no idea Oregon would be so well, scruffy.
She twitched the dirt from her forest green travel skirt and set one foot onto the iron step. The conductor, a short, squat butterball of a man, extended a callused hand.
"Watch yer step, now. Can't have any passenger fallin' on her" He coughed and cleared his throat. Winifred noted his cheeks had turned red. She grasped his outstretched hand and stepped onto the ground.
Her head felt funny, as if her brain were stuffed with wet cotton. Her ears rang. She released the conductor's hand and took a single step, then grabbed the man's beefy hand again.
"Dizzy, are ya?" He steadied her arm and peered into her face. "Happens all the time. Folks don't notice the climb on the train, but the el'vation rises up little by little and then, kapow! With this heat, feels like dynamite's exploded inside yer body."
It felt, she thought, like stage fright, only her hands didn't shake.
"Ya wanna set a spell at the station house while I get somebody to tote yer portmantle?"
Portmanteau, she corrected automatically. "N-no, I am quite all right." She took three unsteady steps and stopped.
"Hard to breathe, ain't it? Kinda hot today."
Hot? The air seemed to smother her every breath, as if she were trapped inside a bell jar. She struggled for oxygen, opening her mouth like a hungry goldfish. It didn't help that her corset was laced too tight.
"Where d'ya want yer luggage toted, miss?"
"Dr. Dougherty's residence." She panted for a moment, fighting the whirly sensation in her brain. "Dr. Nathaniel Dougherty." She swallowed hard to keep inside the bitter words she'd like to level at the man.
"Right. Top of the hill, past the new hospital, 'bout six blocks. Ya sure you're all right?"
"I will be quite all right in a moment." She could see the large white house at the end of the main street. It looked to be at least a mile away, and straight up a mountainside.
"Suit yerself, miss." The conductor stepped past her.
"Charlie," he yelled to a gray-bearded man lounging on the station house bench. "Carry this lady's bag up to Doc Dougherty's, will ya?"
The man nodded, hefted her travel bag onto his rounded shoulder and set off at a fast clip. She took a step in the same direction. Oh, my. Could she really walk that far with her head reeling like this?
She followed the man up the hill, trying not to totter even though she felt disturbingly unsteady. She would not arrive at Dr. Dougherty's doorstep shaking and out of breath. She would need all her wits about her.
She plodded up past the new-looking two-story building. Samuel Graham Hospital, the sign said. That was where Cissy.
She swallowed hard.
The last fifty yards up the hill she slowed to conserve her energy and met the manCharlietramping back down.
"I put yer portmantle on the doc's porch," he said jauntily. "Good luck to ya, miss. He's home, so I'm bettin' ye'll need it."
An odd juxtaposition, Winifred thought. Why would she need luck because Dr. Dougherty was at home? The doctor must be extremely bad-tempered.
The lawn swing on the wide front porch beckoned, but to reach it she had to climb fiveno, six steps. She paused before the first step to catch her breath. Then she managed one-two-three-fourand She halted at the fifth step, panting, then heaved herself up onto the sixth.
Such thin air was surely not good for a baby. Especially a newborn. She propelled herself up onto the porch and sank down in the swing.
Zane laid his fingertips on either side of the bridge of his nose and pressed hard. The headache throbbed behind his eyes and deep within both temples, and he shut his eyes against the relentless pain. It came upon him every afternoon ever since Celestehe could not finish the thought. He gulped the half glass of whiskey at his elbow and bent his head. God in heaven, help me.
He refilled the glass and sat staring at his shaking hand as it replaced the stopper on the cut glass decanter. He could see the veins, the tendons of each finger, but it was as if the hand no longer belonged to him.
Never again would he pat a bereaved husband or wife on the shoulder and reassure them their grief would pass. He knew better now; grief did not pass. It would never pass.
He sipped from his glass and bowed his head again.
Winifred heaved herself out of the swing and stepped unsteadily to the glass-paneled front door.
Hung to one side on a metal arm was an old ship's bell with a clapper of tarnished copper. She winced at the sound it made, raucous as a hungry crow.
The door swung open and a young Oriental man looked at her inquiringly. She took a breath to steady her voice. "Is this Dr. Nathaniel Dougherty's residence?"
The houseboy gave a quick nod. "Yes, missy. But too late for appointment."
"I do not wish to make an appointment. I wish to speak to the doctor."
"Come in, please, missy." He gestured her inside and closed the door behind her. "You sick?"
"No, I " Her breath ran out before she could finish explaining. "I " Her vision went watery and black spots swam before her eyes. In the next instant the floor rushed up to meet her.
"Boss!" Wing Sam yelled. "Come quick! Lady has fainted."
Zane thrust open his office door to see Sam on his knees beside a young woman. "Get my smelling salts," he ordered.
He knelt and bent over the motionless form, slipped free half the buttons down the front of her dress, then searched for her corset lacings. Sam thrust the lavender salts into his grasp and he uncapped the bottle and waved it under her nose.
The woman twisted her head away and batted feebly at his hands as he was unlacing her stays. "Stop that!" Her voice was unsteady, but the intent was clear.
His hands stilled. "I'm sorry, miss, but you fainted in my hallway. I am trying to aid your breathing."
She opened her eyes and his heart jolted against his ribs. My God, they were the same clear blue-green as Celeste's. The unexpected rush of pain was like a knife blade.
He pressed two fingers on her wrist. Pulse fast but irregular. Heat exhaustion, probably. Wouldn't be the first time a woman had succumbed to a too-snug corset. Why did young women persist in such foolishness?
"Help me sit her up, Sam." Together they raised her shoulders. Her lids drifted closed and he gave her another whiff of smelling salts.
"Miss? Take a deep breath, now. It's only the heat, I think," he said to Sam. "Must be a flat-lander."
"Pretty lady," Sam observed.
Zane hadn't noticed. He watched the young woman slowly regain consciousness again. She jerked when she realized her front buttons were undone.
"I undid them," he reminded her. "To loosen your corset."
"You must be Dr. Dougherty," she said slowly. "That I am."
"Dr. Nathaniel Dougherty?"
She was fully awake now. He watched those not green, not blue eyes focus on his face. "Yes. And you are ?"
She drew in a long breath and expelled it, all the while scrabbling to close her front buttons. "Do you always undress your visitors?"
"As I said, I undid them to Answer my question, please. Who are you? Are you ill?"
"I am not ill. At least I wasn't when I arrived at the train station. I am Winifred Von Dannen. Celeste's sister."
Zane sat back on his heels and stared at her. Of course. Same pale skin and high cheekbones, the same determined chin, the same He found he couldn't look into those eyes.
Something ripped inside his chest. "I see." Dammit, his voice shook. "I would welcome you to my home, Miss Von Dannen, but you are lying flat on my floor."
"I must get up," she said in a decisive tone. "This is most undignified."
Sam took the vial of salts from his hand and Zane helped the woman sit fully upright. Then he clasped both her elbows and lifted her to her feet.
"Thank you," she breathed. She gazed at him and waited.
"Iforgive me, you were not expected so soon."
"Did you not receive my telegram from St.
"Yes, I" He had read it three times but he could not remember what it said.
"I left earlier than I had planned. I wanted to " Her eyes looked shiny. "I wanted to see Celeste's grave. And the baby. I came to see the baby."
"Of course." He had not been able to revisit his wife's grave site. After watching them lower the coffin into that dark hole that day, he doubted he would ever be able to visit. The pain behind his eyes throbbed.
"This is most awkward," she said. "If you do not mind, I need to sit down."
He guided her to one of the straight-backed chairs in the wide hallway that served as his waiting room. "Sam, bring some tea."
"No, please. I am quite all right now."
He tipped up her chin and peered into her chalk-white face. "And some sandwiches," he called. "You look half-famished, Miss Von Dannen."
"Yes, I am, now that I think about it. I was in such a hurry to get here, you see."
Zane nodded. He did not see. She had not come for the funeral; the wire he'd received had explained she was away on tour. Still, she must be anxious to see the baby.
Sam appeared with a tray of tea and a plate of tiny sandwiches, the kind he served when Zane skipped too many meals or spent too many long hours at the hospital.
"Come into the dining room, Miss Von Dannen." Zane guided her to an upholstered chair at one end of the carved walnut table. She fell on the sandwiches at once and he poured the aromatic tea into the blue china cups. Sam had used the good china, he noted. It reminded him of when Celeste His hand shook, and he clattered his own cup back onto the saucer.
She ate in silence, and he sipped his tea and watched her. Couldn't help watching her, in fact. She was a bit older than Celeste, more settled somehow. Less excitable. Then he remembered that Winifred Von Dannen was a professor of music in St. Louis, at the same academy where Celeste had studied. Of course, someone of her stature would not be young, at least not as young as his wife had been. In fact, Winifred Von Dan-nen was well-known in the East. A pianist, like Celeste.
"I was more hungry than I thought," she said. She replaced her cup on the blue-flowered saucer and looked up, straight into his eyes. The ripping inside his chest tore at him. She looked so much like Celeste. "Now," she said. "May I see the baby?"